Monday, December 03, 2007

Critical Thought: Introduction and #1

One of the things I find most interesting about the theatrosphere is that at times, even with all of the theatrical content out there, it is a self-generating gossip machine, a place where there are more comments about comments than actual observations about the industry itself. (For instance, Nick's wrap-up of the Hunka/Jacobs back-and-forth of earlier this year, and the various responses that's gotten.) There's been much said in the last month, but I've stayed out of it; I'm glad someone bashed the Isherwood column, but on the whole, I found that to be unnecessary; I was pleased to see such great coverage of the strike, but found myself with no hard news to contribute; and I was flattered to be mentioned in George's latest state of the union address, even though I think it's a good thing that there are no standards -- in other words, no limitations -- to what might be said on the Internet.

I had a great time reading all of these posts, or what might be called "lurking" by New York Times Magazine's new media columnist, Virginia Heffernan. You may have even seen the rare post by me, but for the most part, I've decided that whereas I already have my focus on reviews on my main site (That Sounds Cool) and over at the Show Showdown, I don't have the energy to talk about talking about other things, which is something this post seems to belie. So without further ado, I'm going to introduce the new direction for my blog, an attempt of mine both to break out of idleness and irregular posting here, but also to strengthen my original intent: to find the form of criticism that best realizes the medium, and also to show, to anyone reading, a different sort of artist's search for truth. I set out on this path back in April, with a mini-manifesto (of sorts), and I'll delve back into that search now by citing some good examples in the various literature I read, either of good usages, good observations, or things that just make me wonder what the whole point of criticism is, anyway.

Anyway, I'll begin with two excerpts from the December 2007 issue of Harper's Magazine.
Try to understand what the author wishes to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt . . . if the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author's ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it's his and not yours?
- John Updike, Picked-Up Pieces (1975)
Granted, he's talking about literary criticism, but theater is just a flesh-and-blood, three-dimensional production of what's already on the page, and what Updike says here is pretty accurate. If you're going to condemn craft, it helps to put that text into context, by either finding places where it works in the play and then doesn't, or by talking about the genre as a whole, explaining what extra piece was necessary to elevate the text or justify it. Of course, this requires a wealth of knowledge, which is why the theater critic must never stop seeing shows, and shows of all variety, not just those content to sparkle in a big house, but those that are forced by necessity to innovate in a smaller space.

And then these two gems from W. H. Auden's De Droite et de Gauche (1952), which has the French title because the original English was lost (meaning that the following is a return to form for this belated retranslation):
The best literary critic is not the one whose judgments are always right but the one whose essays compel you to read and reread the works he discusses; even when he is hostile, you feel that the work attacked is important enough to be worth the effort. There are other critics who, even when they praise a book, cancel any desire you might have to read it.
Man, to be that critic, the one who manages to spark a genuine excitement in the reader. There are all to many shows that I've written negative reviews for, but in all of those critiques, I always start by trying to set the scene, to explore what exactly it is that I'm responding badly to, in the hopes that the reader will be able to use their own judgment. I avoid hostility (though I often get it from anonymous comments that would rather attack me than explain the supposed merits of the play in question), because I don't think it is ever conducive toward discussion or thought, but I do think the important thing Auden says here is that the best critic is -- most importantly -- not always right. How dare we boil things down to such blacks and whites?
Judging a work of art is virtually they same mental operation as judging human beings, and requires the same aptitudes: first, a real love of works of art, an inclination to praise rather than blame, and regret when a complete rejection is required; second, a vast experience of all artistic activities; and last, an awareness, openly and happily accepted, of one's own prejudices. Some critics fail because they are pedants whose ideal of perfection is always offended by a concrete realization. Others fail because they are insular and hostile to what is alien to them; these critics, yielding to their prejudices without knowing they have them and sincerely offering judgments they believe to be objective, are more excusable than those who, aware of their prejudices, lack the courage to enter the lists to defend their personal tastes.
That quote there is the heart of criticism, and I think it explains why so many people out there are having poor reactions to modern American criticism. The easiest observation to make is that a lot of the professional critics out there don't seem to actually love what they do. You have to want the show to succeed -- even if that biases you a little -- or you become incapable of seeing anything other than what you've already established in that first five minute impression. Granted, we are a culture that works heavily off of first impressions, but historically, the first impression has never gotten us anywhere. Look at how many firsts we've been wrong about; Hell, look at how many people John Simon has reversed his opinion about as the years have gone by! That second point there, too, again speaks to the necessity of experience -- really the only qualifying point for any active critic. If you enjoy spending your time in the theater, it will never seem alien to you; instead, it will just be another adventure.

What I find most interesting about that whole thought is that prejudice can be something useful, and if you think about it, there's really no reason why we should be able to fight for the playwrights we love. The problem is, as with Isherwood and Sarah Ruhl (love), Will Eno (neutral), or Adam Rapp (hate), is that it's not enough to just have that closeted off: it needs to be clear, too. Why do I like Adam Bock plays so much? And how can I resolve his casual, completely innocuous language, with my other loves -- for lyrical text (specifically rhymed couplets) and a cinematic aesthetic on the stage (the sort of stuff Lear deBesonnet does). I imagine that delving into that would only make me a better critic, and as the months go on, I hope to start interviewing some of these delightful artists so that I can find out why I feel so connected to their styles -- and perhaps succeed in exciting the rest of you to the same degree.

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